The excitement around "Industrial Hemp" is building and spreading from state to state as visions of hemp fields flowing over the horizon captures our imagination. Think about it for a minute. For the first time in over 70 years we are attempting to reintroduce a plant once banned and slated for eradication. It never really disappeared though but rather continued to grow in plain sight in the ditch rows of the Midwest farmers fields or in the basements of urban cannabis growers. With hemp products pouring into the US and estimated to be worth nearly $600 million dollars a year farmers are logically asking why not pay our own farmers to grow it? Donald Trump are you listening?
"Get big or get out" ... Earl Butz, 1970's USDA Secretary
We might want to take a moment though and consider what "Industrializing Hemp" might mean. In 1935 there were 6.8 million farms surrounding small rural towns all across America. Today there are only about 2 million families still farming and their survival is in question. Sixty percent have gross cash income under $10,000 meaning nearly all of them are losing money. Most farmers need to work off-farm jobs just to keep their land. When we mourn the loss of "family values" today we never really think about how we gutted rural America, the birthplace of those values: work hard, play fair and take care of each other and the land.
Today commodity crops such corn, soybeans and wheat are so oversupplied that farm income has dropped over 75% in the last few years! Corn at $3.40 bushel is a losing proposition for all but the largest agribusiness farmer who has connections and contracts. Just 2% of the farms in business today produce over 47% of all the farm production output.
Earl Butz got his wish. We planted fence row to fence row chasing new demand from overseas markets like Russia in 1972, or flawed ethanol policies in the eighties that now consume over 40% of all the corn produced. Incidentally, the net energy we get from ethanol is very close to break even, meaning we put just about as much energy into it in terms of diesel fuel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides as we get out of it mixing it with gasoline and burning it in a car.
Before we "Industrialized" our food system in the seventies "when farmers produced too much and prices began to fall, the government would pay farmers to leave some land fallow with the goal of pushing prices up the following season. When prices threatened to go too high, payments would end and the land would go back into cultivation. The government would also buy excess grain from farmers and store it. In lean years — say, when drought struck — the government would release some of that stored grain, mitigating sudden price hikes. The overall goal was to stop prices from falling too low (hurting farmers) or jumping too high (squeezing consumers). A side goal was to go easy on the land. The New Deal policymakers had seen how high-production agriculture could devastate land’s productivity. The “dust bowl” was a fresh memory." Grist: "The Legacy of Earl Butz"
Now we are ready to go big again but this time with industrial hemp. Before we institutionalize all the incentives and penalties to do it let's consider some possible unintended consequences. Hemp is a wild plant that hasn't been mono-cropped in the US for a long time. What will happen when we plant hundreds, perhaps thousands of acres across a county? How long will it take for it's natural pest resistance to wane? There are plenty of insects that really like cannabis: aphids, root worms, spider mites, grasshoppers and beetles.... Wild Hemp manages just fine but what happens when we crowd it like corn? What about weeds? Are we OK soaking the ground in Glyphosate? Is a GMO Hemp plant coming?
At Chimney Rock Farms we are researching ways to grow hemp without herbicides or pesticides using Integrated Pest Management approaches. In another blog we will discuss those methods and share our results. We believe hemp is a gift to farmers we can either use wisely to heal the land and each other or not and plant it like just another commodity crop that externalizes the costs to future generations. Let's pause for a moment to think it through before we plant fence post to fence post.